As a singer you may have heard of your voice having different “vocal registers”, and how important it is to use them appropriately. Do you know what they are for your own voice? Have you explored how you can improve and refine your own vocal registers?
If not, read on to discover how paying attention to your registers can improve your vocal tone, make you sound more professional, and even help you tame those troublesome notes in the middle of your range.
What are Vocal Registers?
Your voice has a certain pitch range, which can be measured in notes. This range is divided into registers, and whether you knew it or not, you have regularly heard singers (professional and amateur alike) using their low and high registers. What distinguishes the registers of a vocal range is their differences in pitch, sound quality and tonal colour.
Registers are separated by “breaks”. Breaks can be just one note, or several, that when sung are some of the most difficult notes in your range to produce well. You could think of this as being riding a bike over a bridge joining two paths – it’s possible, but it’s technically more difficult than riding along the paths.
Remember that your vocal cords are a muscle, and just like any muscle in your body, they can be stretched and strengthened. Extending your overall range involves you stretching your vocal cords, and strengthening your breaks involves the same thing.
Imagine for a minute that you have two distinct voices – a “chest” voice and a “head” voice.
- Your chest voice is your lower register. The sound you produce partially vibrates through your upper chest and gives it a deeper tone colour.
- Your head voice is your higher register. This is sometimes called ‘falsetto’ especially when referring to male voices. The sound you produce partially vibrates through your skull and gives it a brighter tone colour.
Now imagine that these two voices overlap. This means that you are able to sing some notes in the middle of your range in both your chest voice and your head voice.
Below are several examples of me singing short phrases first in my chest voice and then my head voice:
You may need to listen a few times and use headphones to really hear the difference! The change in sound from controlling your registers can be subtle, but over the course of a song (or a singer’s lifetime) it can make a big difference to how good the voice sounds.
Bridge the Gap
Beginners often have a big gap in pitch when they move from one register to the other, which means you will be restricted into what notes you can sing. So first you need to bridge the gap between your chest and your head voice. This will make your voice more versatile, and you will find it a lot more comfortable singing a much wider range of songs.
Use a piano or a similar instrument to help you pitch notes. Pianos in particular are useful because the notes are laid out in front of you very clearly. It is very important to keep track of which notes you’re hitting, and also to know if you are singing outside of your normal range.
Start in your chest voice, and pick a fairly low note that’s comfortable. Once you know which note you’re starting on, slowly head up the scale on any comfortable phonetic such as “aah” or “la”. As you go up, remember to keep in your chest voice, keeping a mental note of the general sound of your voice. If after a few notes you hear your voice start to sound different, try to change the placing of the sound in order to make it sound the same as your previous, more comfortable notes. You should stop when you can hear or feel a strain on your voice.
Then do the same starting from the top, in your head voice. Once you’ve done this, make a note of which notes are difficult in the middle of your range.
So What Do I Do About Breaks?
Once you have bridged the gap, and can sing a wider range of notes around the middle, there will probably still be a “break” – or perhaps more than one. Next you need to get a better idea of whereabouts your breaks are.
Even advanced singers who can sing a very large range have weaker points in their voice! At least one part of your range will be more comfortable to sing than others, and will sound a lot better. Your breaks on the other hand will cause the sound to be weaker, more breath-y and will be more difficult to produce.
Here is a quick exercise you can do to help identify where your breaks are:
With a piano, other instrument or tuner to help you, sing a short “ee” starting in your high register. Make sure to pick a note that is naturally comfortable. Then go down the scale, singing “ee” each time. Take a breath whenever you need to, and take your time going from note to note. As you head down towards your low register, you should hear the quality of your sound changing before it lands nicely in the low register, just as it does in the recording below of me singing across two breaks. Your break(s) will be near the middle of your range, so experiment by singing in your chest and head voice at different times.
Other things to listen out for are:
- If the pitch sounds slightly off. On your break, sometimes you have to distribute air differently when breathing out compared to your stronger notes, otherwise the pitch can bend up or down and be out of tune.
- If the tonal colour changes. Aside from chest voice which sounds lower, to head voice which sounds higher and more resonant, check to see if there is any difference in tone colour across your registers.
Now I Know Where They Are, What Now?
Once you know where your breaks in your registers are, the next stage is to strengthen them. In a lot of genres, singers have distinct sounds in different registers, but in order to alternate from one to the other in quick succession you need to have good vocal endurance in areas surrounding your breaks too. Pop and R&B are the most prominent when it comes to having a low chest register and a high head register, especially with female singers.
Have a listen to artists like Adele or Amy Winehouse to get an idea of of this, and try to hear where their breaks in their registers are. You’ll notice that even though their chest voices initially sound much “stronger” than their head voices, the difference is actually much more to do with timbre than vocal endurance. There is a big difference to a voice which sounds tender and a voice which simply sounds weak.
To strengthen your breaks, you need to sing in them frequently, applying the same techniques to singing as the stronger parts of your register. It is important, though, to strengthen your breaks by singing in them using both of your registers.
Your ears are paramount for vocal placement, since you will need to start analysing the quality of your voice’s sound in more detail.
Did you know that your vocal chords actually change position depending on whether you sing high or low? This means that if you want to make the notes within our breaks sound as strong as the rest, you will need to work on vocal placement. I outlined this a little when talking about bridging the gap, but this is where it really comes into play.
Every note you sing has to be placed in order for the sound to be produced. As you become more advanced, you learn how to use different styles of placement in order to develop a wider range of colour and timbre. It is common knowledge among singers, however, that you have to learn almost an entirely new way of vocal placement when it comes to your breaks!
Vocal placement is controlled by the following techniques:
- Breathing and Vocal Control
- Positioning of muscles (vocal chords, mouth, tongue etc.)
So now’s the time to experiment with your breaks. I have already talked about vocal registers, and in another article I talk about how to improve your vocal control and breathing. Your ears are paramount for vocal placement, since you will need to start analysing the quality of your voice’s sound in more detail, especially when it comes to the third aspect listed above.
Biologically, using vocal cords is very natural as we talk all the time. Therefore it is extremely difficult to physically feel our vocal cords changing position when we sing. Listening and analysing your sound will help your breaks to become stronger and sound more consistent with the rest of your voice. Your muscles will simply do the rest.
Here are some tips to help you analyse the sound of your voice in more detail. Remember, this is not simply about whether you sound good or beautiful!
- Louder/quieter notes and sustaining the note consistently can be improved with breathing and control. Remember to keep working that diaphragm and don’t push the sound out all at once.
- A sudden change in tone colour can be improved with register. Experiment with how your voice sounds in a chest or head register, or even somewhere in between.
- Breath-y/husky tone, unstable/wavering pitch and lacking strength/resonance can all be improved with the positioning of muscles. Try changing the position of your head and tongue.
To help you, use a specific set of notes so you always know where you are. If you can’t hear differences yourself, you can also try recording yourself and listening back.
Building Up Strength Carefully
Finally, be careful about your vocal endurance. It is better to do a little often rather than big long sessions of these exercises. Never try to force anything out, and instead give your vocal cords time to adjust. If you ever get tired it is better to rest, as that will help you to build up your strength and endurance more effectively.
Always listen to yourself – if you notice a change in sound, especially in your more comfortable registers, work out what is happening and make the appropriate adjustments.
Use the advice and exercises above to get to know your registers and find your breaks – and then bridge the gap, strengthen your breaks, and develop a stronger, more versatile, more reliable singing voice!
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